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New Series no.17/18 July - September 2000

Preparing for the September Elections
by Jonathan Steele

The arrests of eight foreigners, including two Britons, on charges of espionage are designed to create a `sense of siege' and boost President Slobodan Milosevic's already strong chances in next month's elections, western officials fear. `They are in effect hostages to his effort to present Yugoslavia as being under threat', a senior official said yesterday.

Ever since last year's war over Kosovo, Western governments have pinned their hopes of removing Mr Milosevic on various scenarios, including an army coup and street demonstrations. When the Yugoslav strongman unexpectedly announced snap elections for next month, they banked on the central campaign issues being the future of the Serbian economy, Serbia's reintegration into the European fold, and how best to achieve political liberalization.

But Mr Milosevic is casting the election as a loyalty test, with his challengers portrayed as traitors. `This is a battle for the survival of the nation and the state. Slobodan Milosevic is the symbol of Yugoslavia, of heroic resistance to the aggressor, and of restoration and development. Our opponents are not an opposition to our party, but to their own people and the state', Gorica Gajevic, secretary general of the Socialist Party of Serbia, said last week.

Forced onto the back foot, the fractious Serbian opposition has accepted Mr Milosevic's game plan and, in choosing Vojislav Kostunica as its standardbearer in the elections, has appointed a nationalist rather than a liberalizer. As a result, Western governments find themselves rooting for a man who strongly criticized Nato's Kosovo campaign and who refuses to meet officials from Nato countries. AntiüWestern feeling is still high in Serbia and although many voters criticize Mr Milosevic they seem to accept his argument that Yugoslavia remains under siege.

Mr Milosevic's maverick ally, the ultraünationalist Vojislav Seselj, yesterday pursued that line. He attacked Mr Kostunica as `Nato's candidate'. `Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle and the BBC have all praised Kostunica over the past few days in Serbian-language broadcasts', he said. Mr Kostunica had been more cunning than other opposition leaders at hiding his proüNato feelings, but Serbs would never vote for `Nato candidates', he went on.

The charge is ironic since Mr Kostunica's nationalist credentials are clear. Before the Nato air strikes, he was photographed with Serbs in Kosovo brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle in resistance. He has described relations between foreigners and the Serbian state as `a game in which everything is given up in return for almost nothing, except symbolic concessions'. He strongly opposes the Hague Tribunal and criticizes the war-crimes indictment issued against Mr Milosevic.

This line of `moderate nationalism' may explain why Mr Kostunica came out well in a recent poll by the Belgradeübased Institute of Social Sciences. It found him leading Mr Milosevic by 42% to 28%. But the poll was taken before the Serbian Renewal Movement, a leading opposition party, decided to put up its own candidate in a move which will split the antiüMilosevic front.

This report appeared in The Guardian (London), 10 August 2000
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